The Only Footage of Mark Twain: The Original & Digitally Restored Films Shot by Thomas Edison

We know what Mark Twain looked like, and we think we know what he sound­ed like. Just above see what he looked like in motion, strolling around Storm­field, his house in Red­ding, Connecticut—signature white suit draped loose­ly around his frame, sig­na­ture cig­ar puff­ing white smoke between his fin­gers. After Twain’s leisure­ly walk along the house’s façade, we see him with his daugh­ters, Clara and Jean, seat­ed indoors. Above you can see the orig­i­nal murky ver­sion, fea­tured on our site way back in 2010Here, a dig­i­tal restora­tion (which we can’t embed) does won­ders for the watch­a­bil­i­ty of this price­less silent arti­fact, so vivid­ly cap­tur­ing the writer/contrarian/raconteur’s essence that you’ll find your­self reach­ing to turn the vol­ume up, expect­ing to hear that famil­iar cur­mud­geon­ly drawl.

Shot by Thomas Edi­son in 1909, the short film is most like­ly the only mov­ing image of Twain in exis­tence. We might assume that Edi­son also record­ed Twain’s voice, since we seem to know it so well, from por­tray­als of the great Amer­i­can humorist in pop cul­tur­al touch­stones like Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion and par­o­dies by Alec Bald­win and Val Kilmer. Kilmer’s sur­pris­ing­ly fun­ny in the role, but he doesn’t come near the pitch per­fect imper­son­ation Hal Holbrook’s been giv­ing us for the bet­ter part of six­ty years in his mas­ter­ful Mark Twain Tonight. Holbrook’s vocal man­ner­isms have become a defin­i­tive mod­el for actors play­ing Twain on stage and screen.

Giv­en the num­ber of Twain vocal imper­son­ations out there, and Edis­on’s inter­est in doc­u­ment­ing the author, we might be sur­prised to learn that no orig­i­nal record­ings of his voice exist. Twain, we find out in the short film below, exper­i­ment­ed with audio record­ing tech­nol­o­gy, but aban­doned his efforts. It seems that none of the wax cylin­ders he worked with have survived—perhaps he destroyed them him­self.

As nar­ra­tor Rod Rawlings—himself a Twain imper­son­ator and afi­ciona­do—informs us, what we do have is a record­ing made in 1934 by actor and play­wright William Gillette,  an able mim­ic of Twain, his patron and long­time neigh­bor. Like Hol­brook, Gillette spent a good part of his career trav­el­ing from town to town play­ing Mark Twain. Above, you’ll hear Gillette address a class of stu­dents at Har­vard, first in his own voice, then in the voice of the author, read­ing from “The Cel­e­brat­ed Jump­ing Frog of Calav­eras Coun­ty.” Gillet­te’s per­for­mance is like­ly the clos­est we’ll ever come to hear­ing the voice of the real Twain, whose major works appear in our col­lec­tion of 550 Free Audio Books and 600 Free eBooks.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Plays With Elec­tric­i­ty in Niko­la Tesla’s Lab (Pho­to, 1894)

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer

Rare Record­ing of Con­tro­ver­sial­ist, Jour­nal­ist and Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary & Social Crit­ic, H.L. Menck­en

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (5)
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  • Jay Manning says:

    So, which one is show­ing the cor­rect ori­en­ta­tion? The “orig­i­nal”, with Mr. Twain, and his daugh­ters drink­ing tea with their left hands, or the dig­i­tal­ly enhanced ver­sion where they are using their right hands?

    • e_ther says:

      The com­ment says: “The image has been flipped left to right to cor­rect the
      cam­era-to-sub­ject ori­en­ta­tion. It has had it’s speed cor­rect­ed from the
      cam­era frame rate of the day. The detail has been enhanced dra­mat­i­cal­ly
      bring­ing out visu­als nev­er before seen. The fluc­tu­a­tions in the expo­sure
      have been reduced marked­ly”.
      Then it seems that the cor­rect ori­en­ta­tion is the “orig­i­nal” one.

  • Sittin_Pretty says:

    Restored at the wrong run­ning speed! Silent movies do not run at 24 frames per sec­ond like sound films do. They could be any­where from 16 to about 20 frames per sec­ond.

  • Joan Freda says:

    You make no men­tion of Mark Twain liv­ing in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut. He had quite a beau­ti­ful home there and it is now a tourist attrac­tion.

  • Gilbert Carver says:

    I have toured that house on Farm­ing­ton Avenue twice it is just down the street from Aet­na and it is mag­nif­i­cent. It was built to resem­ble the old steam­boats that Mark Twain used to pilot. The tour guides will tell you it was built for around $25,000.00(+/-)

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